Sky lanterns are probably one of the most visually stunning spectacles you will see in a lifetime, but who invented them? Why do people fly them? And when did this practice start? Here are 6 interesting facts about sky lanterns that will answer some of your questions.
1. Sky lanterns were originally invented for war
Sky lanterns are believed to be the invention of renowned military strategist Zhuge Liang (181-234 AD), who was also known as Kongming (孔明). However, the original purpose of the sky lanterns was a bit more grim, as Kongming used them to send messages requesting for help while he was surrounded by enemy troops. This is why sky lanterns are still called Kongming Lanterns (孔明燈) in China. It is also believed that sky lanterns are named after Kongming because the shape of the lanterns resemble his hat.
2. Buddhist monks were the ones who popularized sky lanterns
Buddhist monks eventually incorporated sky lanterns into their ritual of worshiping the Buddha. The public soon adopted this practice and began releasing sky lanterns as a way of giving thanks for the peace and prosperity during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). This practice eventually became known as the Lantern Festival (元宵節) in modern-day China, which is celebrated on the 15th day of the first lunar month. The festival is meant to honor the dead as well as promote peace and forgiveness. Sky lanterns are also commonly flown during the Mid-Autumn Festival, which takes place on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month.
3. The meaning behind sky lanterns
In Chinese culture, everything from the shape to the color of the sky lantern matters, but they generally symbolize hope for a better future, which is why people commonly make wishes before releasing a sky lantern. Sky lanterns also symbolize the act of letting go of your past self and becoming a new person, which is why they are usually flown during the first month of the year.
4. There are three types of lanterns
The most common type of lantern is the hanging lantern, which are the round and red ones that you’ve probably seen everywhere. These lanterns are believed to bring good luck and are typically hung during the Spring Festival, but you’ll likely see them being used as decorations all year round.
The sky lantern is less common compared to the hanging lantern, but you’ve probably flown them in popular tourist destinations in China and Taiwan, or you’ve seen them in movies and TV shows.
And then there are the floating lanterns, which are similar to sky lanterns, except they float on water. They are used during the Dragon Boat Festival, and they are also known to create mesmerizing effects on the surface of the water.
5. Sky lanterns work like hot air balloons
For those of you who are curious about the physics behind sky lanterns, they are basically mini hot air balloons. They are typically made with oiled rice paper and a bamboo frame, with a candle or a source of heat in the middle. The candle releases hot air into the cavity of the lantern, which decreases its density and allows it to float. The bamboo frame keeps the candle from touching the paper, but sky lanterns could potentially become a fire hazard when a strong wind blows on the flame towards the paper and causes it to ignite.
6. Sky lanterns are not only used in Chinese culture
Thailand, Japan, and India all have their own versions of the Lantern Festival, which are called Yee Peng Festival, Kamihinokinai Paper Balloon Festival, and Diwali respectively. In addition, sky lanterns have become increasingly popular in Western countries, although they are usually not part of any ritual or tradition and are used during weddings, birthdays, and other celebrations for aesthetics purposes.